The main views concerning the underlying text of the New Testament have generally fallen into two categories. On one hand, there are advocates of the primacy of the Byzantine text (e.g., Textus Receptus, Majority Text = 98% agreement), a sample of which is available in Maurice A. Robinson and William G. Pierpont’s The New Testament in the Original Greek: Byzantine Textform (2005). On the other hand, there are advocates of the Alexandrian text’s superiority, with consideration given to all text-types to produce an eclectic text, samples of which are available in the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece (27th ed., 1993) and the UBS’s The Greek New Testament (4th rev. ed., 1994).The Byzantine text stands behind English translations such as the King James Version (1611), New King James Version (1979), and Revised Authorised Version (1979). In the New Testament text tradition, as the argument goes, there seems to be a scribal continuity of a basic standard text, preserving through the centuries a very pure and ancient text in the majority of manuscripts. The Byzantine textform shows a higher degree of consistency compared to the other groups, spans a far greater time period, and has a much larger proportional representation in contrast to the tiny handful of Alexandrian documents produced over a significantly shorter period.
The eclectic text favoring the Alexandrian form is the basis of the Revised Version (1881), American Standard Version (1901), and nearly all modern English translations. Of the multiplied thousands of extant New Testament manuscripts, only about thirty represent the Alexandrian text-type. The basic rationale is that the older manuscripts, being closer in time to the originals, are necessarily more reliable than the later ones which are further removed. Since this is the majority opinion that seems to dominate text-critical discussions, an alternative view is presented here. The following hypothesis is not intended to make a dogmatic statement but rather to offer a plausible scenario from another perspective that is too often neglected by the scholarly majority.
It is important to remember that even the later manuscripts were copied from documents that go back to an earlier time period. The best copies, produced with careful transcription, would have been more regularly used and thus susceptible to accelerated deterioration. The quality manuscripts closest in time to the originals would therefore not have survived due to normal wear and tear, the fragility of papyrus materials, and even destruction by enemies of the church. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to expect that the continuity of a standard text was maintained, resulting in the proliferation of reliable manuscripts that now comprise the majority of the textual evidence. Conversely, careless transmission would naturally produce more textual variation. Those recognized as inferior copies would be less frequently utilized, resulting in slower deterioration. The corrupt manuscripts would eventually be discarded and thus inadvertently preserved, especially in dry, arid climates like Egypt. If this proposal is realistic and plausible, the majority opinion ought to be reconsidered. When it comes to evaluating the textual evidence, "oldest" does not necessarily mean "the best" (see The Ending of Mark Part 2).
In more recent years the traditional approach to how manuscript evidence has been classified and assessed is being called into question (see D. A. Black, ed., Rethinking NT Textual Criticism ). The respective labels were coined and the transmissional/recension theories were in place before the papyri discoveries of the early twentieth century and beyond, yet very little has changed in most text-critical discussions. Irrespective of which Greek text one chooses to use, a willingness should be exhibited to do one’s own critical investigation and to appreciate that decisions made by any text critic are subject to scrutiny.
When all is said and done, however, over 85% of the text of ALL editions of the Greek New Testament is identical. Apart from insignificant variations, the real concern of textual criticism hardly comprises more than a thousandth part of the entire text, and the few passages in question affect no fundamental biblical doctrine. There is no reasonable doubt that the Greek New Testament has been faithfully preserved (see Changes in the Bible? Part 1 and Part 2).
–Kevin L. Moore
Related Posts: The Text of the NT (Part 1)